Lily Allen’s premodern age

It is clear the unfolding economic crisis has undermined far more than our trust in financial institutions. People are now questioning a whole set of assumptions which, for a generation, were taken for granted- questions about consumerism, materialism, sustainability, even the viability of capitalism itself. There is a widespread belief that fundamental change is required.

The clamour for change does not feel like a passing trend produced in the heat of the moment. When the fog clears, one suspects that some things will be permanently different; that 2009 will be seen as the year when one era finished and another began.

However, before we can fully define what’s being ushered in we first have to understand what’s being swept away.

What will they call the era that is coming to a close? Trawling through Wikipedia, the term “postmodern” seems to measure up quite well. It’s a term we’ve all more or less heard of, which is a start. According to Wikipedia it’s also a cliche. Even better.

But what does it actually mean? It’s meant to define the era that came after the certainties of modernism, when a belief in social and technological progress gave us things like high rise flats, space travel, the NHS and Concorde. By comparison, postmodernity is all rather flabby and amorphous, characterised by moral neutrality and self-reference. It will probably be known as the Age of Celebrity and, to be honest, it sounds like we’re well shot of it.

But that doesn’t stop Lily Allen being scared by the prospect, as she explains in The Fear, with lyrics that read like an epitaph to the consumerism that has surrounded her all her life – “I am a weapon of massive consumption, and it’s not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function, I don’t know what’s right or what’s real anymore, I’m being taken over by fear.”

Of course, being scared of what comes next hardly puts Lily Allen in a minority. But, while it is too early to look for green shoots in the economy, there are plenty of promising signs about the values that are coming to the fore culturally.

Space prevents a detailed description of the many trends that will shape the new era, but a few edited highlights should help give a flavour of an emerging value system.

First, using vs wasting. Sustainability and thrift will become mainstream, clothes will be repaired, vintage will be chic, used will be as good as new. For clues look at the rise of eBay or, more recently, Freecycle, waiting lists for allotments, rising sales of composters, declining sales of ready meals, India Knight’s Thrift Book, Delia Smith reissuing Frugal Food, SIM-only mobile tariffs, the imminent launch of Landshare, the resilience of the used vs new car market, the success of Bag, Borrow or Steal etc.

Second, being good at something. We are seeing the return of skill, particularly among young people. User generation and upload culture have created an environment where there is more incentive and more opportunity for teenagers to define themselves by what they do, what they are good at, as opposed to what they consume or how they badge themselves. New levels of fame and social reputation are available to those who master a skill, who are excellent at something in whatever field, whether it be music, sport or even knitting. For clues go to YouTube and search Guitar Guy, Moped Dance, Lauren Luke (make-up girl) etc.

Third, trading vs consuming. We are seeing big shifts in the value exchange as customers increasingly recognise and exert their buying power. This involves a search for added value beyond the confines of any given transaction. The added value gained may be ethical (eg Starbucks and FairTrade), it may be to do with the business model (eg Blyk or Spotify), it may be to do with extra rewards for customers, such as O2’s Priority initiative, or it may simply be to do with heightened levels of identification and participation, such as Walkers’ Do Us a Flavour campaign.

The final example is social vs individual objects. This trend, like the previous three, can be seen as a counterbalance. While we should not think that individualism is in decline (look at the trends towards personalisation and control), we can certainly say that individualism is no longer at the expense of more shared values and endeavours. Driven in part by the possibilities of technology and social media, we are seeing a resurgence of communal and collective behaviours. For clues look at the rise of live music events, karaoke, book clubs, knitting clubs, crowd-sourcing sites such as Wikipedia and Flickr. A big question for brands in the future, therefore, will be “how are you helping to create a social as well as individual object?”

If the above trends hold true, the new era ahead of us should be a little more communal and shared, purchases will be more considered, young people will understand the importance of developing a skill and we will be more likely to live within our means financially and ecologically. It all sounds strangely old-fashioned, with many of the cultural green shoots involving a rediscovery of behaviours and attitudes that went out of vogue over 50 years ago, predating both postmodernism and modernism. Perhaps, therefore, the new era we are looking at should be dubbed premodernism.

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